How to Listen to Judy Garland in 2020

I wrote a whole book about her concert at Carnegie Hall—but our year of crisis made me look again

Andy Warhol print of Judy Garland
Photo of Andy Warhol print by Karen Lee
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Judy Garland and I spent a lot of time together last spring. For months on end she kept me company on subway rides, New York Public Library trips, and writing sprints at my desk. I was hard at work on my book, Judy at Carnegie Hall, a small tome on the 1961 concert the famed performer staged at the New York City institution. My book on the Grammy-winning double album, which captures what was then called “the greatest night in show business history,” made me intimately familiar with all 26 of the album’s tracks— from the instrumental “Overture” to Judy’s rousing rendition of “Chicago,” her fourth encore of the night. These songs became the soundtrack to my life for much of 2019 as I researched, wrote, and later proofread and copy-edited the final manuscript. 

When I needed a pick-me-up, all I needed to do was put on Judy’s first number, “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” and follow the song’s lead in grinning my troubles away. “When you’re laughing,” she sings, “the sun comes shining through. But when you’re crying you bring on the rain; so stop your sighing, be happy again.” The song is an apt opening number for an act that, despite featuring its fair share of broody ballads, depends on Garland’s unwavering optimism. Ever since, as a little girl, she’d sung about going somewhere over the rainbow where bluebirds sang, Garland has come to embody a shining beacon of sunny cheerfulness amid dreary doldrums. If Dorothy could make it all the way to colorful Oz and back home again, so could we weather whatever storms our tears bring on. 

I knew merely smiling couldn’t make all my troubles disappear. But hearing Judy’s voice could. Rufus Wainwright saw a similar kind of power in Judy’s live album. “Whenever I put on that record, that Judy Garland record, that concert,” he remembered, looking back at the months he spent listening to it on loop following 9/11, “everything brightened. And I just couldn’t help but sing along.” It’s what drove him to attempt the Herculean feat of putting on Garland’s concert in its entirety for a new generation of fans with Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall back in 2006. Wainwright was right to hone in on the unbridled joy that runs through the 1961 album, which merely captured the energy of the 1961 concert itself. The cheers from the audience, for instance, give merit to Lewis Funke’s description of the concert in his New York Times review as something akin less to a live performance than to a revival meeting. 

Garland’s album scored what was, back in 2019, a transitional moment in my life as my husband and I began plotting our departure from New York City. The prospect of leaving the place I’d come to call home after more than a decade was daunting. Overwhelming, almost. It helped that I had Judy to keep me company. For many weeks my days were spent alternating between finishing a draft of the manuscript and packing up our apartment with precious little time spent wondering what was ahead. “Why should I care?” Judy sings at one point in one of the most jubilant songs on the album, “Life is one long jubilee, so long as I care for you and you care for me!” This was the Judy I keyed into last year, the one who made her acrobatic belts feel effortless and who’d turned herself into an icon of resilience. Her devil-may-care attitude was invigorating and helped make the choice to leave New York City without having settled on where we’d arrive feel less careless than it sounded. Our summer was as close to one long jubilee as we could make it as we spent time in Chicago, Austin, and Los Angeles, trying each city on for size. Judy would approve, I hope, of our current West Hollywood address, which is but a short drive away from her own Hollywood Star of Fame. 

Lately, all I hear are the darkened edges of Garland’s delivery: the melancholy that ran through her best performances.

But if sunny anthems like “When You’re Smiling” and “Who Cares?” helped me make peace with leaving New York City and saying goodbye to my friends, I’ve recently been revisiting the album through a decidedly darker lens. Last year, these life changes felt promising — necessary even. Judy’s infectious enthusiasm felt like fuel. Lately, though, all I hear are the darkened edges of Garland’s delivery: the melancholy that ran through her best performances, the sadness she conjures as she sings about heartbreak and loneliness, even the grievances she couldn’t help but make into punchlines in her banter. The sunniness is still there in numbers like “The Trolley Song,” but it’s her torch songs and sorrowful ballads which now occupy my mind. 

Titles like “Alone Together,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Just You, Just Me,” ring differently amid a pandemic that all but derailed what was to be a moment of celebration about getting Judy at Carnegie Hall out into the world. “I’m weary all the time,” Judy sings in “Stormy Weather,” before the lyric itself echoes such weariness with its repetition: “the time, so weary all the time.” But reading the words alone doesn’t do justice to Judy’s delivery. She stretches her syllables, making you feel the added effort it takes for her to go from one word to another. She doesn’t just sing about weariness, she embodies it. She had good reason to feel weary. For years on end, and after her Hollywood career came to a standstill, she’d had to book live engagements to keep debtors at bay, at times quite literally singing for her supper. There are moments in the recording when you can almost hear the audience wanting to lift Judy’s spirits; they cheer loudly after she bungles a note and clamor uncontrollably when she flubs a line. Inherent in those moments was the conviction that her moving performances were nothing more than cathartic insights into her troubled personal life. 

The sorrows Judy sang about then continue to rankle us precisely because they’re so familiar.

As I spend my days wondering how, if at all, we’ll make it past this pandemic and musing whether my own anxieties about my inability to properly launch my Judy book in a crisis that dwarfs such concerns, Judy’s lamentations feel more personal than ever. “I have a machine in my throat that gets into many people’s ears and affects them,” she recalled in 1964. “There’s something about my voice that makes them see all the sadness and humor they’ve experienced. It makes them know they aren’t too different; they aren’t apart.” That’s not quite as comforting as it sounds. The sorrows Judy sang about then continue to rankle us precisely because they’re so familiar. It’s hard not to listen to the Carnegie Hall record and remember how much Judy craved and feared being alone, apart from others. How days by herself in a hotel room was ultimately what cost her her life. It’s there in the way her voice breaks in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the way the crowd loses it when she hits and elongates the final note in what has to be one of the saddest lyrics ever written—a question many of us are asking ourselves while locked in our small apartments wishing we could be merry outside: “Why, oh why can’t I?”

Chronicler of the gay community Vito Russo once described Judy Garland as “an iron butterfly.” Her strength, he posited, was always laced with fragility; one couldn’t think about Judy’s resilience without somehow also calling up the frailty it kept at bay. Writing 20 years after Garland died, Russo mused instead about what it had meant for so many gay men to have clung to such a icon. (He even wondered aloud whether her death in 1969 had somehow caused the Stonewall riots. Answer: no.) “Her audience was never sure whether she’d fall into the abyss or soar like a phoenix,” he wrote, getting at precisely why certain men felt both so protective of her while also seeing in her a towering strength they themselves looked to. Until last year, this kind of assessment had been nothing more than an intellectual exercise for me. I’ve long been fascinated with how Judy once appealed to what one reviewer in 1967 had euphemistically referred to as “those boys in the tight trousers.” Now, though, I find myself enraptured with the potency of what that iron butterfly once stood for and what she keeps teaching us boys more than fifty years after her death. In the last year, Garland has been a comforting presence even as listening to her songs on loop can feel like its own form of masochism. She’s been both my rainstorm and my rainbow.

Now, though, there’s an added layer to finding solace and (dis)comfort in Judy at Carnegie Hall. The singer’s rousing renditions of songs like “Rock-a-Bye Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Swanee” (“Swanee, Swanee, I’m coming back to Swanee! Mammy, Mammy, I love the old folks at home!”) for instance, conjure up a nostalgia wrapped up in visions of the South that, amid Black Lives Matter protests and images of toppled Confederate statues, feel even more insidious than they did last year when my research necessarily pushed me to reckon with the minstrelsy roots of those Judy staples. As bands like Lady Antebellum (now “Lady A”) and The Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”) remind us, our musical lexicon keeps traces of deep-rooted racism alive. Garland is no exception. She was, after all, always dubbed the heir apparent to Al Jolson, a famed performer known as the preeminent practitioner of blackface on Broadway in the early 20th century: “There is Judy Garland. And there was Al Jolson. And then the mold is broken!” read The Hollywood Reporter in its review of the Carnegie Hall concert: “Ask anyone who remembers the days when ‘Jolie’ took over the Winter Garden runway and they will tell you that never since has a singer of songs been able to mesmerize an audience as Judy can.” 

In singing of bluebirds, she encouraged us to look away from the colorless lives laid bare before us. What place is there, in 2020, for such a call? 

And so I’m left with an album that last year made me giddy—at the prospect of possibility in ways both creative and professional—and which has soured as I experience it in a much different world than the one I hoped to reintroduce it to when I finished writing about it this time just last year. “One wanted to hold her and protect her because she was a lost lamb in a jungle,” Russo pointed out back in 1989 about Garland, “and yet be held by her because she was a tower of strength, someone who had experienced hell but continued to sing about bluebirds and happiness.” In singing of bluebirds, though, she encouraged us to look away from the colorless lives laid bare before us, a uniquely privileged move that can feel like an embrace of willful indifference. What place is there, in 2020, for such a call? 

To listen to Judy at Carnegie Hall—whether in anticipation of a cross-country move when its rousing cheers felt emboldening, in the midst of a pandemic when those same cheers feel like taunts from ghostly crowds, or now as a relic of a sunny vision of white America—is to experience firsthand why Garland is a figure that demands you speak in oxymorons, for that is the only way you can make sense of the contradictions she embodies and inspires in equal measure. She was both bluebird and phoenix, as much a balm as an irritant. But she was also an iron butterfly that could just as easily nudge you to go on as invite you to give up. Judy and I will continue to spend a lot of time together. Just yesterday, six comp copies of my book arrived and now sit tidily next to the original vinyl my husband got me ahead of my pub date to celebrate. We’ll continue to be together, not just “come rain or come shine,” as she sings, but ideally both. How else will we conjure up that rainbow of hers? 

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